What are the role and the function of Sufism in the teachings of Gülen? Since this approach opposes fanatical traditionalism, the label which religion is immediately imprisoned with under authoritarian regimes, does it carry the seeds of democracy?
Fethullah Gülen is a thinker and a man of religion close to Sufism, but in his nomenclature, this concept becomes “lifestyle based on heart and soul.” He often refers to the spiritual life of the Prophet in his writings and sermons. In these references, he draws our attention to the fact that some Muslim thinkers view Sufism as a source of inspiration for heretical currents. When he was asked to give a definition of Sufism, Fethullah Gülen replied,
Sufism is the spiritual life of Islam. In no period, those who represent Islam along the line of Ahl al-Sunnah wa’l Jama’a [Sunni way of belief] were outside that spirit and meaning. Tariqa is a set of disciplines within the thought of Sufism, by going to the core of religion, aims at earning the pleasure of God, therefore the bliss of this world as well as the next.
Sufism was a lived experience in the Age of Happiness; and later it was systematized by those whom we might call rijali tariqa [important figures of tariqa] according to the character, spiritual disposition, and understanding of each. This is a normal act. At this moment, if I were able to read the hearts and minds of people, I would have given them this kind of duties according to their talents and capabilities within the criteria of the Sunnah. In reality what the sheikhs [Sufi masters] do is not different from that. According to the characters, their social standings, their general structure, by giving responsibilities in conformity with the spirit of religion, having everyone to progress spiritually according to their talents and capabilities, has aimed at to make real the necessary corollary of “the purpose in the creation of mankind is to become insan-ı kamil [the perfect human].” Now this is what Sufism is all about.
Fethullah Gülen responds to those who call his system of thought and teachings “an unnamed Sufi movement” as follows:
If by that, it is meant the people who are in the path of approaching God trying to get close to Him or who are after becoming insan-ı kamil, this would be correct, and in this sense, there is no believer who is not a Sufi or on the way to becoming one. But if by that it is meant either because of the differences of the addressees or those who represent it in terms of making it into a Sufi order and present it to the public as such, then these activities are neither Sufism nor a Sufi order.
Moreover, Fethullah Gülen says in the context of Sufi thought, the Turkish interpretation of Islam carries a special flavor. According to him,
Sufism is a discipline appropriating as its subject matter the spiritual aspect of Islam. It is an interpretation the metaphysical aspect of which is very dominant. Sufi training exists in every sector of our society, to an extent. Everyone has had a share from it. The impact of Sufism on the Turkish society is more, compared to other places in the Islamic world. The understanding based on considering oneself inferior to everyone, and everyone superior, preferring everyone to oneself, were gifted to this society by the people of Sufism like Ahmad Yasawi, Yunus Emre, Mawlana Jalaluddin Rumi, and Haji Bektash Veli. … That soft, embracing understanding and conduct has an important place in the sight of God and in the life of the society a unifying factor. Although he is not from the people of Sufism, the same understanding and morality was represented by Bediüzzaman, one of the eminent scholars of the last century. He says, “I have forgiven those who oppressed me, sending me from town to town, accusing me with many charges, trying to convict me, and preparing places for me in the dungeons.”
According to Fethullah Gülen, this understanding exists with almost all of the members of Turkish society, at least potentially, and is ready to emerge at any moment. He sees this in a relation with the Turkish culture and stresses that every faith system develops an organic (give and take) relationship with the cultural setting in which it exists.
About the relationships between Sufism and Sufi orders, Fethullah Gülen explains:
Sufism is a name given later on to the act of studying and researching as a scientific matter the spiritual side of what should be considered as the essence of Islam. What is important is performing the good deeds which belong to heart like zuhd [asceticism], taqwa [piety; the conscious performance of good and avoidance of evil], ihsan [perfect goodness], and marifat [spiritual knowledge of God]. This is inseparable part of Islam.
Religious orders on the other hand, as a little institutionalized form of this spiritual aspect of Islam, had emerged five centuries after our Prophet. I have respect for the Sufi orders in terms of their goals, and in general, the positive functions they performed in history. But today do the Sufi orders conform to the needs of the age, should they exist or not? These can be open to discussion. But no Muslim can stay aloof to the aspect of Islam which is its essence, sustaining the faith, as a road guiding one to perfection, its spiritual aspect, namely Sufism. Every human organizes his life according to the pleasure of God; tries to live in the direction He desires. He would and should take as the ultimate goal to worship Him as if seeing Him and in the end to become a morally perfect human being. In order to realize these, it is not even necessary to have Sufi orders.
In the period following the founding of the Turkish republic in 1923, Sufi orders and dervish lodges were banned. Fethullah Gülen was asked to comment about this:
From the general decay in the declining period of the Ottoman Empire, the Sufi orders, dervish lodges, and the religious schools had their share, too. They became incapable of performing their real functions. The same thing was experienced in the army, as well. In the Ottoman period, against all the innovations and reforms the Janissaries, sometimes taking along with them the religious schools, had reacted negatively. The rebellion of Patrona Halil, and in some other rebellions, this is the case. As for the religious schools, for instance for a period Kadızadeliler, as it were, became the representatives of the backwardness, and acted that way. In short, from the general decline of the Ottomans, all the institutions had their share, the military, the academics namely the religious schools and the dervish lodges. The same thing can happen today. As the decay is experienced in the Sufi orders, and as we witness, it could be experienced in the schools for civil servants, and in some other vital institutions.
In the years the republic was founded, they had gone after the decay in the dervish lodges, the retreat centers, and the religious schools; for both to deal with this and also to deal with the rebellions here and there, the Courts of Independence were established. But in both these courts and in the conduct displayed against the decaying from time to time extremities and exaggerations took place. These should be evaluated within the context of that period and the reaction which occurred as a result of it. That day what the state was against was not Sufism, it couldn’t be. Because Sufism is the vocation of living Islam the best way, practicing Islam at individual level, and becoming a perfect human being. It is the vocation of sincerity, honesty, and the piety. But if under this name, the science and new developments are opposed and state is prevented, then the state takes necessary measures to deal with it within the accepted boundaries. Otherwise it would not be right in its interference.
This analysis of Fethullah Gülen also extends to the debate “religionist vs. laicist,” which occupies lately most of the discussions among the Turkish public and the media.
As there is obscurantism in religion there can be obscurantism in the reaction against religion. No one can say anything to those who accept secularism in the legal sense. For those who make secularism into an ideology, who makes it into an element of fight, they are giving the name “laicist” or “laicist obscurantist.”
Therefore, although I dislike the term and do not use it personally, I find them inappropriate for my manner of style in my speeches; unfortunately these kinds of people exist. For that reason, … we should be, as a state and as a society, soft, tolerant, open to dialog, respectful for the differences, but bring to the fore the things we can agree on, peaceful and never go outside the boundaries of law.
 Fethullah Gülen 2009b, 125–126.
 Ibid., 126.
 The interview given to Nicole Pope, Le Monde, 28 April 1998.